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We are building our future on the myriad of intersections between humans and machines. While it may seem counterintuitive, smarter machines are the key to making that future as human as possible. Creating a better user experience (UX) hinges on embracing artificial intelligence (AI).
We interact with computers and other machines in many small ways every day. These intersections can be frustrating and fruitless or they can bring order out of chaos and unlock new possibilities. We're quick to chalk up the difference to simplistic reasons: Users are out of touch or computers are too complicated.
The real answer embraces the complexity of computers and people. After all, UX is what happens at that nexus between the two. Respect for both is the only way to deliver a UX that reaches its full potential.
UX isn't a concept that's confined to modern technology — it reaches back much further. Understanding its origins and how UX has evolved can help us understand how it defines our relationship with the tech of today.
Essentially, UX is an aspect of any interaction between a person and something made by people. It's how that interaction feels. From the first flint-hewn arrow to the most ergonomically designed can opener, humans continually have sought to improve what they create to serve their ends more effectively and efficiently.
Beyond mere efficiency, people have used the concept of UX to harmonize humans with their environments — be they digital or material. The ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui rests on the idea that spatial arrangements of objects create or obstruct the flow of energy around and through us. The Greeks used concepts of ergonomics to design their tools and workplaces so that people could work and create with less effort.
After the industrial revolution, the 20th century was a never-ending quest for better UX. The automobile was one thing, but the car with power steering — that's a UX-design-driven creation. On a larger scale, the mass-production systems of Frederick Winslow Taylor gave way to operations designed for more human input and feedback at Toyota. The creative vision of Walt Disney and Steve Jobs further expanded our idea of how a human-machine partnership could truly become something more than the sum of its parts.
Apple has, perhaps, best exemplified what a commitment to UX design looks like. At critical junctures in tech development, Steve Jobs saw something others couldn't quite see: the importance of building technology for people. That's what led from the programmer-oriented interface of MS-DOS to the graphical interface of the early Apple computers. It's what transformed the business-nerd Blackberry into the universally popular iPhone.
The advent of computers is what brought UX design into focus for people such as Jobs. In particular, the addition of another intelligent actor into the equation made for more interesting possibilities. No longer were we interacting with strictly inanimate objects: We were interfacing with something capable of learning and responding to us.
Up to that point, human relationships with the things they created were completely distinct from their relationships with each other — or, at least, with other sentient beings. At the heart of that difference is intelligence.
Much of child development revolves around our growing understanding of the complexity of human communication. We pick up on the nuances of body language, the subtleties of tone and the influence of emotions. We learn that we can infer meaning based on slight changes in word choice. We adjust how we respond based on the person we are interacting with.
Intelligence — our inherent ability to learn and grow — is what makes this possible. And it's what has made our increasingly complex relationship with machines possible, too.
In a certain sense, artificial intelligence has been around since the first computers. Once we handed some of our own ability to process information to computers, AI (as in machine intelligence) was born.
The complex relationship between mankind and machine has been a favorite of artists for the better part of a century. In literature, film and television, dystopian visions of robots usurping control from their human creators are commonplace.
Star Trek's Borg is one of the most enduring manifestations of this fear. The emotionally detached cyborgs bent on assimilating all other races into a collective, neutralized "we" represent a nightmare vision of what the human-machine relationship will become.
The reality is far more like Commander Data, the android on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” who is always striving to become more human all while the humans benefit from his distinctly inhuman capabilities.
Because UX with computers depends on intelligence, the evolution of UX and AI have gone hand in hand. Cars are a great example of this. Today's vehicles rely on AI to do everything from climate control to automated driving — and the user interface for all of this has to be intuitive and easy enough to use that a driver can use it without getting in a wreck.
In the world of marketing and branding, AI has been integral to an evolving UX. According to Adobe, top-performing companies are more than 2 times more likely than others to use AI in their marketing. Netflix has estimated it saves $1 billion a year thanks to its use of AI-powered algorithms to drive user recommendations, according to Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative. Spotify's Discover Weekly playlist has transformed how artists get their music heard.
What's happened as all of this has developed? As human life increasingly relies on computers, we use AI to make computers more human. Machine learning is at the root of this. It's the human-like skillset we give to computers that enables them to learn new things. As we give computers these tools and rely on them, it leads to UX design that is driven by AI.
When someone visits your website, you want them to feel like it was designed just for them. But how can one person, or even one design team, do that for countless visitors? AI is what makes that possible.
Here are 5 ways AI helps you deliver the best UX:
Your website may draw thousands of visitors every day. Those visitors come from all over the place with a variety of backgrounds and interests. Each one is unique, yet there are unifying features that tie them together. Designing the UX of your site is all about understanding those unifying features so you can create something that connects with your visitors and drives them on their journey.
Consider just a small segment of the data you might want to capture when someone lands on your site:
On a broader scale, you might be reworking your page design and split-testing different options. You may want to know which one leads to more time on the site, more purchases or more newsletter signups. AI can aggregate, organize and analyze this data for thousands of users much more efficiently than you can on your own. It can present that data to you for action, or it can even put it into action itself.
Technology giants such as Google and Facebook have been using AI for targeted advertising for years now. Users are used to seeing ads pop up related to recent searches or other online activity.
Amazon.com's recommendation engine may use this to the greatest effect. The online retailer uses AI to personalize your home page and recommend products based on everything you have viewed already. These tools are responsible for 35% of Amazon's total revenue, according to McKinsey & Co. Without them, you would be left to navigate the jungle of unrelated products on your own.
There's no way for you to personally respond to each user's preferences one by one. But AI makes this possible. Even if you don't have a lot of information about a specific visitor the first time they arrive, AI can help you personalize their experience based on where they're located, what device they're using and how they got there. If they make a purchase, this gets added to the data and can further shape their experience.
AI can make a marketer's job easier in so many ways, not the least of which is through automation.
Abandoned-cart emails have become a common tactic marketers use to push an online sale across the finish line. This entire process can be automated and personalized with AI. On the back end of a web store such as Shopify, simply turn on the abandoned cart function (or add a third-party app), set the parameters, and you're set. These emails can include the shopper's name, the items they left in their cart and any other personalized elements that fit.
Consider email newsletters, too. If you're trying to find the best time to send emails to your list, for instance, email marketing software can automate this thanks to AI. By analyzing the data of your recent newsletters, it can see when they were opened and automatically suggest the best send time. Or you can set it to only send an email to your biggest spenders. There are countless ways you can customize your campaigns to dial in the right UX, and these would be impossible without the power of AI.
Direct, specific user engagement has always been limited by how much of your budget you could put into hiring and training customer reps. Whether it was through chat, email or on the phone, you could only respond to so many people at once.
Chatbots are changing this reality for many brands. Thanks to AI, these bots go beyond simply holding a customer's place in line until a real human can talk to them. Companies are using chatbots for everything from insurance claims and restaurant bookings to virtual stylists and even therapists.
This allows you to engage far more users at any time of day, anywhere in the world. And it's less frustrating for a user than getting the dreaded "We are currently experiencing high call volume" message.
It's impossible to talk about UX without also considering issues of accessibility. Here again, AI can simplify something that seems like an impossible task: making your site user-friendly for anyone, regardless of their unique abilities. Uber has used AI to make its app more useful for those who have difficulty hearing. Pictures on Twitter can now be described for blind users. Services such as accessiBe are even automating WCAG and ADA compliance for screen readers and keyboard navigation in this ever-changing arena.
Using AI will help you ensure that your UX doesn't discriminate and keeps pace with regulatory changes.
Like it or not, the future of humanity seems inextricably tied to computers. This doesn't mean dystopian dread is going anywhere. Artists will undoubtedly continue to raise questions about the relationship between humans and machines — and, in doing so, help us better define what it should look like.
One thing we already know for certain, though, is that at its best AI can actually give a more human touch to the things we create. If marketers and product designers remember that, in the end, they're designing our digital products for humans to use, then they will continue to use AI to design a more compelling user experience.